Rehabilitate Manila Bay sans reclamation projects

There is probably no question that the Duterte government‘s 2017-2022 plan to clean up and rehabilitate the gravely polluted Manila Bay, at the cost of P43 billion, is a most welcome, although much-delayed, development.

Much-delayed because it was in 2008 that the Supreme Court granted the petition for a writ of continuing mandamus filed — in 1999! — by environmentalist lawyer Antonio Oposa. The SC is compelling government to act fast on the ecological crisis. On Jan. 20, it directed the convening of its advisory committee to monitor and verify the implementation of its decision, emphasizing the “extreme necessity for all concerned executive departments and agencies to immediately act and discharge their respective official duties and obligations… [and] set timetables for performance and completion of the tasks…”

And President Duterte has formed a task force to fast-track the rehabilitation of Manila Bay.

Well and good. However, the Manila Bay rehabilitation plan lacks “comprehensive and systematic measures based on sound science and social justice,” according to a broad group of environmentalists, scientists, lawyers, church people, a national fishers association, an urban-poor organization, and various other sectors.

The group calls particular attention to three points: One, the plan emphasizes the relocation of 230,000 informal settler families. Two, it neglects to hold government agencies responsible for the long-standing insufficiency of public sanitation services. And three, the group warns that “at least 28,000 hectares of approved reclamation projects across the bay threaten to undo the various efforts to restore Manila Bay’s ecosystem and natural resources.”

Yesterday, these concerned citizens launched Manila Bay Watch, an advocacy campaign that aims to monitor the rehabilitation program to ensure that it’s based on science and justice, that it shall serve the needs of the majority of the people, including the poor who depend on the bay waters for their livelihood, and to ensure that no new reclamation project shall be allowed along Manila Bay. They invited me to share my thoughts, acknowledging my continuing advocacy for environmental protection and conservation since my nine-year stint as a partylist (Bayan Muna) legislator.

The rehab plan sets 51 target outputs on solid waste and liquid waste management, informal settler families and illegal structures, habitat and resources management, and partnership and governance mechanisms. However, closer scrutiny by the group revealed that, in 2019, the provisions on habitat and resource management have been removed, expected outputs on solid and liquid wastes management have been trimmed and focused only on the coastal areas and waterways close to the bayside.

Most appalling is the revelation that P36 billion, out of the P43-billion total outlay, have been set aside for relocating the 230,000 informal settler families. So that was what it’s really all about?

Unfair and lopsided, the group of protesters said. Why? Because, per a World Bank study, the low-income families contribute only 5% to Metro Manila’s solid waste output, whereas the waste output of the total middle-income population and the commercial establishments are 9.6 times and 7.4 times more than that of the low-income. Why are we blaming the poor?

The Manila Bay Watch unity statement avers that the informal sector families shouldn’t be relocated. Instead, onsite or in-city public housing should be developed for them with provision of proper waste management and sanitation services. Alongside that step, it urges that fishery be revitalized in Manila Bay and preferential access be given to the small fisher folk.

Scientific studies have shown that the major problem of pollution is due to lack of proper regulations on waste disposal not only of households but of manufacturing plants and business establishments, inadequacy or absence of public infrastructure and services such as materials recovery facilities, sanitary landfills, and sewerage pipelines. For instance, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System’s two water concessionaires – Manila Water and Maynilad – have connected only 14% of their serviced population to their sewerage pipes and systems and offered sanitation services to only 44% from 2011 to 2016.

The pollution crisis has deep roots. It can be traced back to the reconstruction of Manila’s infrastructure demolished largely by US aerial bombings, under Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command, towards the end of World War II, 74 years ago. The Americans concede that Manila, next to Warsaw, was the most destroyed city in that war. Just imagine Manila as Marawi after the 2017 siege.

Revealing of where the blame lies – wrong policies, mismanagement, political corruption, private greed – is an account of Manila’s post-war rehabilitation by Gerardo P. Sicat, retired UP economics professor and former economic planning minister during the Marcos regime. In his column, Crossroads, in the Philippine STAR on Feb. 20, he wrote that the reconstruction boom of the immediate postwar period led to the development of industries replacing old services with new ones. The negligence that would spell large-scale pollution decades later started from there.

“The public works and city management neglected the regulation of effluents,” Sicat pointed out. “Soon, the draining of these effluents would poison the natural waterways with toxic waste, darkening and suffocating life in them.” Public works standards and bureaucracies suffered badly and the regulation and upkeep of facilities deteriorated, he added.

In fact, Sicat noted, public works construction not only neglected the drainage system, “but also filled up some existing waterways thought to be a hindrance toward land improvement.” Besides the failure of standards and breakup of institutional rules and processes, he lamented, “the new politics of accommodation that emerged after independence” further eroded the rules and processes.

Thus, building and improving roads became more attractive than digging waterways or allowing good drainage or rebuilding the city’s sewerage system. “In fact,” Sicat stressed, “politics would lead to the deterioration of the upkeep of the water services and sewerage systems.”

Alas, the politics of accommodation today has worsened, playing out in the approval of major reclamation projects on Manila Bay, according to reports, without the necessary risk assessments and corollary guidelines and rules. All together, at least 25 reclamation projects covering 28,647 hectares of foreshore areas are in varying stages of application, approval, and development. All these must be thoroughly examined and, on just basis, vigorously opposed.

* * *


Published in Philippine Star
Feb. 23, 2019

Share This Post